Empowering women with cooperatives in Niger
By Henry Weil, ACF Editor, with ACF Nutritionist Amal Bennaim
Women and Hunger, a recent report by Action Against Hunger, notes that in many of the communities we serve: "Women spend long hours in the fields, tend domestic livestock and vegetable gardens, gather firewood, haul water, prepare and cook food, take care of children and manage household finances. In most cases, women use almost all their income to meet household needs. At the same time, traditional culture and land laws often prevent women and girls from gaining an education and obtaining access to communal resources and public services that would allow them to improve their families' livelihoods."
Alone in Niger: Supporting Women Farmers
Many women in Niger live in such circumstances. Worse, many of those wives and mothers are largely on their own these days. Their husbands have traveled to other countries in search of work in the wake of a prolonged drought that destroyed livestock which formerly fed their families. Husbands who manage to find work elsewhere send money home sporadically, but the drought has also destroyed local crops that the wives traditionally cultivated, and imported food is costly. Many of the women and children left behind were malnourished.
In one community, Tabalak, we had a Supplementary Feeding Center to assist malnourished families. The women of Tabalak traditionally planted millet and sorghum during a short growing season, and when the harvest was depleted, in most years the community faced six months of insufficient nutrition. When rainfall was scanty, the period of hunger was even longer.
Womens' Cooperatives: Organizing Against Hunger
Our team, however, recognized that Tabalak sits beside a lake whose shores were uncultivated. So the team hatched a pilot project. They asked the women to organize into cooperative groups who would farm the available lakeshore. Each group of six or so women received seeds -- lettuce, manioc, orange yams, tomatoes -- that would grow during the months when millet and sorghum wouldn't. We also taught the teams about irrigation and gave them watering cans to carry water from the lake to the shore-side fields.
In addition, many of the women already grew such vegetables as carrots, eggplants, and onions that they sold for sale to other communities -- receiving less money for their produce than the cost of replacing the nutrition contained in what they sold. The women of Tabalak didn't eat these vegetables because they didn't like the flavors. So our teams taught them how to cook the vegetables, as well as the new varieties, in appetizing ways.
In six weeks the new crops began to mature, and all at once the women of Tabalak were producing sufficient nourishment on their own to forestall the widespread malnutrition that they had traditionally lived with six months of every year. And they accomplished this success on their own. We gave them seeds, tools, and instruction, but we checked their progress only once a week. Each cooperative planned its own work patterns.
Following the women's success, we introduced lessons in harvesting seeds from the new crops and in crop rotation to keep the soil from becoming exhausted. Today, the women of Tabalak still work arduous hours, but they've learned they can feed themselves as well as their children healthfully, irrespective of their husbands' contributions.
We now believe that when we pack up and move on, the community won't need us again.